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The LBJ Brigade

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Panther, London, 1967
(price: 3/6; 128 pages)
first published Apocalypse, Los Angeles, 1966
first UK publication by MacGibbon & Kee in 1966

The blurb on the back:

'This is a ghastly and bloody awful book in the most literal sense, and exactly what needs to be published' - James Cameron.
The LBJ Brigade chronicles the swift, brutal education of a young American soldier in Vietnam. Full of vague ideals and naive preconceptions when he arrives, he is immediately taken in hand by four grim, demanding teachers.
The Land: beautiful and repellent, a refuge and a trap.
The People: men, women and children, poor, alien, withdrawn, shifting allegiance a dozen times a week.
The Professionals: Sergeant Sace, a walking arsenal with the instincts of an animal, unhampered by morals; Vo Chi, realist, visionary, Communist, naive political theorist and sophisticated military tactician.
Death: hunting the hunters and the hunted, the only winner in the game.

opening lines:
I am 1-A. 1-A is the national seal of approval, it means I am the cream of American manhood: over 18 and under 26, physically and morally and mentally competent, and finished with school. 1-A is the highest honor my government bestows upon its citizens.

This is an extraordinary book, and well worth tracking down. You see, the problem with our perceptions of Vietnam is that we've all been infected by the Hollywood version - all that Deer Hunter and Full Platoon Apocalypse stuff - which was constructed only after America was beaten, and was essentially an attempt by a liberal artistic establishment to explain both why the US ever embarked on such an inexcusably imperialist endeavour, and why the world's most expensive fighting machine was so humiliated. Partly because all the movies were made retrospectively, and partly because the defeat was so comprehensive, so overwhelming, it has all come to seem inevitable.

Which is why you need to read this novel. Much of it's familiar stuff, but it was written at a time when the possibility of stopping communism dead in its tracks was plausible. And that uncertainty about how the enterprise was going to end changes everything.

The story is straightforward. An American kid gets drafted, happily goes to 'Nam to fight for his country and for democracy, finds himself in a deeply hostile environment, and meets in particular both a cynical US veteran and a North Vietnamese ideologue. The former teaches him lessons in survival:

'There ain't no right or wrong out here. Livin is the only thing that counts. We're white men fightin colored men. That makes it a race-war. Forget that un you're dead. This ain't Paris, kid, it's Asia. Ain't nobody on your side cept yourself.' (p.59)

The latter shares a slogan that still resonates: 'A technology can't overcome an ideology' (p.105)

Mostly, however, it's the classic story of the ordinary soldier: the young man thrown into the midst of a conflict he doesn't understand, floundering in emotions too extreme for any normal human being to deal with. We've been here before, and admittedly this isn't up to All Quiet On The Western Front levels, but war is still with us, and it's worth being reminded from time to time of those who actually have to do the fighting called for by armchair-clad politicians. And as a variation on a familiar theme, it's as brutal and honest as you could reasonably ask, with conscript naivety thrown up against the veteran sergeant spelling out the professional soldier's creed at its basest level - 'ABC: adventure, booze un cunt.' (p.75)

Don't bother watching another Vietnam movie until you're read this book. At which stage you'll find that the absence of the clichés (Hollywood egos, luxurious Cinemascope shots of picturesque jungle, rock & roll soundtrack) is like a blast of reality.

Incidentally, I assume that the Poe-esque authorial name is a pseudonym concealing the identity of a vet. In which case, I offer the respect that I accord all those who've seen active service, regardless of their cause. A second novel, Detour, was published in America in 1974 by Berkley/Putnam.